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Researcher: Empowering Civil Society is Right Approach to Disaster Recovery

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, local and city governments should refrain from developing detailed disaster-recovery plans which could delay the rebuilding process and make it less likely that businesses will reopen and displaced citizens will return to their communities, according to research by a political economist.

“One of the primary things you want to worry about when it comes to natural disasters is allowing civil society--churches, charities, and businesses--to take the lead in the recovery process and recover resiliently and quickly,” Dr. Daniel Smith of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University said during a presentation for the George Mason University Economics Society last week. Smith’s research was supported by George Mason’sMercatus Center, a research center known for advancing free market solutions to public policy questions.

Smith came to this conclusion after studying the recovery process from two cities devastated by the wave of tornadoes that wrecked portions of the Southern United States last year.

On April 27, atornado slammed into Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It killed 52 people and damaged or destroyed 5,144 homes and 575 businesses. Less than a month later, another tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, with even deadlier consequences. The twister killed 161 people and damaged or destroyed approximately 7,500 homes and 557 businesses.

“You have two very similar tornadoes striking similar size towns in a similar way with similar damage, it’s an opportunity to go into those towns and see how these towns are going to recover, what’s helping the recovery, and what’s impeding the recovery,” said Smith. “And if they take two different approaches, you can learn even more from that.”

In the aftermath of the tornadoes, he traveled to each city to witness the recovery process and interview victims. Smith found that each city received an outpouring of aid and volunteerism from civil and business organizations but noticed that the recovery process was taking much longer in Tuscaloosa than in Joplin.

“Initially you would expect that Joplin would recover at a slower rate than Tuscaloosa” because of the severity of the twister, Smith said, but in little more than three months after the tornado, 69 percent of destroyed businesses in Joplin had reopened or were in the process of reopening.

In Tuscaloosa, however, Smith found that less than 15 percent of destroyed businesses had received construction permits to begin the rebuilding process more than a year after the tornado occurred.

Moreover, in May of 2011, Tuscaloosa declared a temporary moratorium (attached below) on construction in the areas affected by the tornado while Joplin waived licensing and zoning regulations, even looking the other way as residents and business owners rebuilt without permits.

With businesses open, the citizens of Joplin returned, says Smith. Joplin officials estimate that 90 percent of the population returned and school enrollments were unchanged after the twister. Smith doesn't have these metrics for Tuscaloosa.

Smith believes the dramatic differences in recovery times have to do with the amount of government involvement in the recovery planning process (which he measured by the page length of recovery plans and the percentage of community business people represented on each city’s advisory committee).

In Tuscaloosa, Smith obtained one long-term recovery plan that was 170 pages long, full of detailed requirements in an attempt comprehensively plan the rebuilding of Tuscaloosa.  In Joplin, however, it was 26 pages long (attached below) and full of recommendations.

In Tuscaloosa, Smith found, only 24 percent of the advisory committee was composed of businesspeople while in Joplin, three-fourths of the advisory committee was made up of businesspeople.

Tuscaloosa, according to Smith, has used the disaster to improve the city in ways that overwhelmingly have nothing to do with mitigating future risks presented by natural disasters.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddoxcriticized the research  in an April op-ed . Smith says he stands by his research and that his interviews with business owners contradict Maddox’s claims that Tuscaloosa’s recovery has been fast, effective, and democratic.

Joseph Myers, former president of the National Emergency Managers Association, criticized the op-ed saying calling the practice of waiving building codes in Joplin to expedite development a classic case of "being penny wise and pound foolish.”

Smith, however, believes quick recovery translates into a return to normalcy that people crave in the aftermath of a severe trauma. “It’s important to get businesses back, to reestablish houses,” he said. “If people don’t see that, they will stay away and they’ll never return.”

Smith says the government's role in the recovery process is "maintaining the rule of law, protecting property rights, and ensuring free trade."

“These functions become even more important when a disaster strikes,” he says.

Arguments like his, however, have becomeeven more controversialin the wake of Hurricane Sandy that struck the Northeast nearly two weeks ago.

“Nature’s fury can be compounded by man’s folly,” said Smith. “By micromanaging every step of the recovery process, you can actually hamper a community’s natural resiliency that emerges after a natural disaster.”Appendix 1_Ordinance No. 7673.pdfListening to Joplin Next Steps.pdf

 ♦ Photo of Joplin destruction by xpda/Flickr